Veteran cattle exhibitors share tips on producing a champion
Dairy cattle exhibitors bringing home an award from one of the World Dairy Expo breed shows have every right to feel like they’ve accomplished something special.
Collectively, the more than 2,500 cows, heifers and calves exhibited at Expo each year represent the finest dairy animals on the planet. A win here earns an exhibitor bragging rights for being one of the very best.
Pulling off the feat requires hard work, dedication, knowledge and even a little bit of luck. With all of this in mind, we asked several long-time successful dairy exhibitors to share their thoughts on what it takes to bring home the hardware.
Sweat the details—all of them. "Practice, practice, practice," says Julie Hemp to dairy cattle exhibitors who are looking to step into the winner’s circle at Expo.
Along with breeding registered Ayrshire and Jersey cattle, Julie and her husband, Mike, own and operate M&J Heifer Care, a heifer boarding business in Chebanse, Ill. In a typical year, they’ll work with 12 to 15 customers from throughout the U.S., getting animals of all breeds ready for competitions on the local, state, national and international levels.
Over the past decade, the Hemps have compiled an impressive record of high placements at Expo. They’re especially proud of the Reserve Junior Champion Ayrshire titles they captured in 2008 and again in 2009.
The Hemps start getting ready to show at Expo months ahead of the event. "It all comes down to the hard work you do at home," Hemp says. "You have to stay on top of the feeding program and watch the animal’s weight. You have to monitor their feet and ribs. You have to wash them every day—twice a day as the show gets closer. That will keep their hair nice and long and fluffy, so it’s easier to clip out."
Getting animals used to the show halter months ahead of showing may be the single most important thing an exhibitor can do to increase the odds of having a winning entry, Hemp says. "An animal that leads well will capture the judge’s attention. You can have a great animal and do everything else just right. But if you don’t have full control of the animal when you step into the Showring, it hurts your chances," she says.
"You have to walk each heifer on a show lead daily until you get it down to a T, she adds. "If you work at it, stay at it and keep with it, you’ll succeed."
The animal you pick to go to Expo has to stand out from all the others in your herd, says Christy Ratliff. The right genetics is the best place to start.
Start with a winning animal. Selecting just the right animal is Christy Ratliff’s advice for Showring success at Expo.
"The animal you pick to go to a top show like this one has to stand out from all the others in your herd," Ratliff says. Along with her husband, Ron, she manages Ratliff Jerseys in Garnett, Kan. "If she doesn’t sort herself out, she’s not good enough to come to a show like this."
Part of picking the right animal is attending lots of shows throughout the year to get an up-close and personal look at daughters out of the top bulls within a breed. At shows, Christy and Ron spend a lot of time talking to other breeders about the bulls they’re using in their programs. Then, they pour over stud books for additional production information.
"We try to use bulls from dams with good pedigrees," Ratliff explains. "I want a lot of excellence in the dam—at least in the 90s—and a lot of good milk records. We focus on the pedigrees because Jerseys breed pretty true."
Simply having an outstanding animal, though, won’t guarantee success at a top-flight show event like Expo. "You still have to put in the hours and work with your animals every day. You have to wash them, stay on top of their diet, start working with them and leading them when they’re calves," she says.
"Once you get to the show, you want to keep them full with good feed and have a good night man with them in the barn to make sure they’re getting everything they need," she says.
That approach has served the Ratliffs well in the more than 15 years that they’ve been competing at Expo. Topping their long list of accomplishments is the Reserve Grand Champion title that one of their animals earned in the 2009 International Jersey Show.
Consistency in feed rations and animal handling on a daily basis is key to having cattle in prime shape for the Expo showring, says Nick Uglow.
Make animals feel at home. Keeping the daily routine for animals in their combined Expo Showring similar to the routine on their respective home farms has played a big part in the success that dairy cattle breeders Nick Uglow and Tom Agnew have enjoyed at Expo in recent years. Uglow, with Horseshoe Hill Brown Swiss in Watertown, Wis., and Agnew, with Mapleton Valley Farm in Oconomowoc, Wis., say animals need familiar routines to perform their best.
"Cows are creatures of habit," Uglow says. "They want things the same day after day after day. If you take them out of their environment and place them in a different environment, they’re going to need an adjustment period."
Uglow, Agnew and their crew start setting up in the barn on Friday morning, the week before Expo starts. They bring the animals in on Saturday. "We’re fortunate in that we live only an hour away from Madison," Agnew says.
Keeping show animals on the same ration that they’re used to eating at home is a major part of the strategy. "For most of the year, the majority of our cows are on a ration based on corn silage and/or haylage," Uglow says.
"At least three weeks prior to coming to the show, we start transitioning them off fermented feed and onto a show diet of dry hay, beet pulp and dry grain. We try to make it a gradual process. It’s one less transition they have to make once they get to Madison."
Teamwork is also an important part of Agnew and Uglow’s Expo game plan. Along with their own animals, the Expo string also includes animals owned by Tom’s parents, Pat and Phyllis, his sister, Katie, and friends Jessica Hasheider and Josey Morris.
The string’s accomplishments over the years include a Reserve Junior Champion Milking Shorthorn, a Junior Champion Brown Swiss and two Junior Champion Guernsey heifers. "Everybody on the team knows what their role is and what’s expected of them," Agnew says.
Like the Hemps and Ratliffs, Agnew and Uglow emphasize that getting started early is important to compete at Expo’s highest level. "The more work you do at home, the more successful you’ll be at the show," Uglow says.
"That means walking and leading animals every day, spending hours washing and clipping them, keeping them on a regular feeding schedule and making sure that they’re in a very comfortable environment. You have to cover those basics," he adds.